Matrix, or the Death of Cyberpunk.

Matrix - Suspension

There is no denying that the Matrix franchise holds an important position in the history of cyberpunk. At the time of its released in 1999, it was the first convincing rendition of the genre in any medium to reach a diverse audience since Blade Runner (1982) and Neuromancer (1984), and it introduced a whole generation to the common tropes of cyberpunk science fiction. Furthermore, the success of the movies was in no small part assured by a profound philosophical subtext that lastingly marked popular culture, for better or worse.

Over the years, however, I found myself increasingly dissatisfied with the Matrix movies. And though I am aware that what follows will be met a lot of resistance, I would like to express the grounds of my discontent. In my opinion, Matrix undermines three of the main achievement of cyberpunk over classic science fiction:

-Cyberpunk is not concerned with grand universal schemes, it is a limited and immediate reaction to the decaying state of modernity.

-Cyberpunk does not buy the “great men” narrative. Its take on the human condition is a realist one.

-Consequently, cyberpunk’s philosophical interest is directed towards ethics rather than metaphysics.

The Simulation frontier

In Matrix, virtual reality is so real that it is indiscernible from reality. It is a step away from the crude aesthetics of emergent technology that we are accustomed to in cyberpunk, and it is one of the strongest feature of the movies. It is also their weakest point.

In classic cyberpunk, the actual world is the primary universe, and cyberspace is secondary. Virtual reality is a function of the primary universe, and serves as a tool to accomplish specific tasks in reality. Cyberspace is finite, because it is dependent of technology in the actual world. This limitation is consequent with the general perspective of cyberpunk, a genre concerned with short-term evolution of technology, disillusion towards modernist ideals and the effects of late capitalism. Cyberpunk rejected the grand, cosmological speculations of classic science fiction, favoring instead hands-on, short term futurology.

In Matrix, it is the other way around. From a storytelling point of view, the primary universe (the matrix) is function of the secondary (the machine-dominated reality). That narrative possibility was bound to be explored at some point in the genre history, as the old tropes inevitably begin to repeat. But this inversion implies that the characters operate in the unknown on both sides: the matrix is ever changing, infinitely hackable and exploitable, and actual reality is so alienated that it is now a terra incognita to be conquered (back).

Hence we are left with no point of reference except what the movies tell us is real. This is perfectly acceptable, and it is what any work of fiction does to some extend, but the whole argument of Matrix is that appearances can be deceiving and that we should not accept reality at face value, yet this is precisely what the movies ask from their audience. It has been said that the distinction between science fiction and fantasy resides in the former dealing with the unknown and the latter with the unreal (see Malmgren, “Towards a Definition of Science Fantasy”, Science Fiction Studies, 1988). The line the audience has to cross to consider Matrix science fiction is to “believe” that we are shown real and unknown. In other words, the rhetoric of Matrix is one of fantasy, “the suspension of disbelief”, and not science fiction, and this has dramatic consequences for its reception.

Matrix - Suspension of disbelief (pun intended)
Suspension of disbelief (pun intended).

Turtles all the way down

At no point the actuality of the world of 2199 is called into question, although nothing would prevents a “Morpheus 2.0” to appear with another set of pills that would prove the machine-reality to be yet another matrix, and so forth (as it is the case in Simulacron 3), unless we accept the movies premises that this is it, don’t ask why. Hence the simulation hypothesis works only inside the frame of the movies, therefore it would be misguided to import such incomplete reasoning into real life, and I have very little patience for Nick Bostrom’s nonsense.

To ask “Are we living in a computer simulation?” does not differ in substance from asking if we are living in a dream from God or on the back of a turtle. The apparent difference is a fine varnish of science, the meta-universe of a Matrix-like reality being, allegedly, material instead of spiritual, but it doesn’t stand scrutiny, the only possible conclusions ending up being inherently subjective and unprovable. It is an important question, one that everyone asks themselves at some point in their life, but we must not lose sight that this is a cosmological, if not theological, question, and not a scientific hypothesis.

Cyberpunk is a genre that prides itself for exposing the probable future based on the current state of the world. Following the classic definition of science fiction as “cognitive estrangement” (Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction), we could say that cyberpunk specificity towards classic sci-fi resides in the enhancement of its cognitive virtues by keeping its estrangement to a minimum. In other words, because cyberpunk is so close to us, because the world it describes is not a strange planet or a mythical past, we can more readily use it as a tool to understand our present. The Matrix does not offer a possible future, but rather a possible present, one that is dependent of a leap of faith.

Hence we are legitimized to question the philosophical pretenses of the movies. By alluding that there is a cryptic answer, while repeatedly refusing to answer its own questions, it is hard not to believe that the producers have shot over their capacities. Reloaded, and to a lesser extend Revolution, feels like a gauntlet of “deep” questions that reads like the table of content of a “Popular Psychology” handbook. “What is reality?”, “What is control?”, “Causality?”, “Love?” Yet all of those questions remain unanswered, or are met with circular reasoning (Oracle: “We’re all here to do what we’re all here to do.”), and ultimately with the same prescription: “Believe.” At its lowest point, the movies even sink to the wisdom of a yuppie drunk on Sun Tzu (Seraph: “You do not truly know someone until you fight them.”).

The problem of reality, and the philosophical discourse that comes with it, is nothing more than the technobabble of space opera: it operates a narrative function, to justify the hero’s destiny, but to try to make sense of it as vain as trying to make sense of time-mechanics in Doctor Who. The key concept of Matrix is not “simulation”, it is “belief”.

The Matrix “Believe Supercut” – first movie only.

Party like it’s 1999.

The basic metaphor structuring Matrix is pretty straightforward: the wage slaves are living and dying for “The Man”, that is to say, any structure of power, be it The System, Government, Market, or whatever suits your political alignment, and this is a perfectly common standpoint for cyberpunk. However, in the case of a executive trying to conform the punks to his corporate worldview, the opposition is ideological, subjective, the power struggle is subtle and not necessarily given at first glance, and ultimately, every character has to choose their course of action, with a wide range of consequences. The ethical message of such a narrative is that mankind, as a collective, is responsible for its own oppression.

Since Matrix does not directly address class, race or gender, we must look for social issues in at the way it portrays “Otherness”, a mechanism used in science fiction to discuss marginalized communities, dating as far as Gulliver’s Travels (1726). True, the awakened men of Matrix are resisting the forces of conformity, but then the opposition is not from men to men, but from men to “monsters”, the latter perceiving humans as mere “batteries”, that is to say, as food. Thus, following the good ol’ Western code, the dwellers of Zion represent at the same time unbridled freedom and normative civilizational values, fighting against anthropophagous savages, visually identifiable, be it by mechanical tentacles and glowing red eyes, or by feathers and warpaint.

The Matrix's
The flesh-eating “Other” of the Matrix: Tentacles, glowing red eyes, black skin, firebreathing with smoke in the background. It doesn’t get more evil than that.

Indeed, Morpheus does tell Agent Smith that “You all look the same to me.” This line of dialogue is ironic, arguably, coming from an African-American, but nevertheless encapsulates the general attitude of the free humans towards machines and programs. The indifferentiation of the “Others”, in this well-known expression of racism, is what makes them alien. The issue of empathy in machines, doubled up by a reflection empathy between humans, so crucial to Blade Runner, cannot possibly apply here, and while Matrix is apparently all about the merging of natural and artificial, there is in fact a clear line between what is to be considered right and wrong, a line that could not be crossed. Hence the dangerous rhetoric of Morpheus: “If you are not one of us, you are one of them.” Well, we have heard that before, have we not?

The oppression, then, is external and alien, the power structure is binary and brings back the classic narratives of old science fiction, of alien invasion (here: machines) and space exploration (both in cyberspace and in reality). Ideologically, those have always have clear ties with the notion of “Empire”, either to be protected from the barbarians or to be expanded to bring in a continuous flow of resources. Consequently, through a negative process, the movie values imperialism when Agent Smith defines humans as being the only mammal specie that needs to spread: humans thrive, machines merely replicates.

To be clear: I do not pretend that the Wachowskis are positively promoting a conservative or imperialist message, but they are delivering their ideas in the format of Hollywood’s epics, a format highly codified that has acted as an hegemonic structure for decades, and that is problematic.

The matrix recreates the year 1999, the “peak of human civilization” according to Agent Smith. Why not Victorian Britain or Renaissance Florence? Remember that 1999 was ten years after the fall of the Soviet Union, and two years before 9/11. The “peak of civilization”, then, is when capitalism reigned supreme, with no foreseeable obstacle to the march of the American Empire. And Morpheus blissfully confirms this Golden Age status: “In the early 21st century all of mankind was united in celebration” (of globalized neoliberalism, one might assume).

The Peak of Human Civilization: in 1999, we were running Windows 98 - or trying to.
The “Peak of Human Civilization”? In 1999, we were running Windows 98 – well, trying to, anyway.

In the famous “desert of the real” monologue, it is quickly alluded, only to be as quickly brushed off the table, that this human impulse to boldly go forward might be responsible for this mess. Morpheus, spiritual guide, father figure and military leader, could not care less for accountability: humans may or may not have “started it”, but for sure are responsible for the smog that blocked the solar cells of the machines, so, oops? But nevermind that, let’s kill those motherfuckers since we are believers in our own humanity and that is justification enough.

Some have already criticized, more or less convincingly, this libertarian righteous aspect of classic cyberpunk (after all, those are stories of “console cowboys” exploring the “cyberspace frontier”… see Neil Easterbrook, “The Arc of Our Destruction”; Nicola Nixon, “Cyberpunk: Preparing the Ground for Revolution or Keeping the Boys Satisfied?”), but never has this been as literal as in the Matrix, as it is outlined even further by the protagonist’s predicament.

Part III: “The Return of the [fill the blank]”

The consensus around what is to be considered “post-cyberpunk” is that those are stories involving protagonists that operate within the boundaries of the law, with a legit business or governmental agency (most of the time, that means cops). On the narrative level, this marks the return of the heroic archetype as protagonist. On the one hand, Neuromancer’s main characters are Case, a drug-addicted hacker, and Molly, ex-prostitute turned mercenary. They are accessory to a major change in the world, but it is unclear whether this is a good thing or not. The same can be said about the characters in most of classic cyberpunk stories, like Shirley’s Eclipse, Cadigan’s Synners, Blade Runner, Max Headroom or Akira.

On the other hand, the protagonist of Snow Crash, a novel often cited as the first post-cyberpunk work, combines the qualities of Case and Molly, without their troubled past. Hiro is not only a hacker/ninja, he is the best in both disciplines, and he also can tackle Sumerian cuneiforms without cringing. Riiight… But Snow Crash is not as straightforward as it seems. The novel is thoroughly filled with irony, the ridiculous name “Hiro Protagonist” giving it away from the start, and in the aftermath of its anti-climatic conclusion, nobody seems to notice that Hiro just saved the world. Just like Hiro Protagonist, Neo is flawless, fearless, has no doubt, goes through no crisis, and has in fact, very little personality. Nothing can really be said about him, except that he is a function, “the hero”, in a narrative diagram. While Hiro was a joke, we are supposed to take Neo seriously, adding to the role of hacker/ninja another job description, that of “messiah”.

Religious awe in Hollywood: Ben-Hur witnessing the Crucifixion (left), Link and Zee reacting to Neo's triumph (right).
Religious awe in Hollywood: Ben-Hur witnessing the Crucifixion (left), Link and Zee reacting to Neo’s triumph (right).

His Nietzschean status is inscribed in his very name, “Neo”, the “new man”, a name conveniently possible to anagram as “The One”, at once the proverbial hero presented by Propp (Morphology of the Folk Tale) and Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and the not-so-reluctant prophet embracing his destiny. The Christian symbolism is outlined in bold: Neo miraculously comes back from the dead, briefly ascends to Heaven, above the black clouds of Machine City, before dying a martyr, arms apart, his body forming a cross. Last but not least, his consort is “Trinity”. “The One” also refers to the couple “one/zero” of binary code. Neo being the only “one”, that makes all others “zeroes”. Of course, in binary, that does not make them “null”, but it sure makes Neo the only significant item, the only variation that conveys any sense.

To pitch one cliché against another: punks are meant to live fast and die young, not cleanse the world from sin and contemplate eternity.

The Apotheosis of Neo
The Apotheosis of Neo

Thus there is a contradiction, or at least a tension, between the glorification of free will, choices and belief, and the inescapable conditioning, whether in the form of imposed programing or in the more discreet form mystical predestination. Neo’s return to the source has been programmed by the Architect, programming tempered, however, by an heuristic algorithm, thanks to the Oracle, and that allegedly allows him a certain amount of free will. But does it? Does that make him another program in another matrix, or are we to understand that the reality of 2199 is actually real, and that Neo is a cyborg with some sort of implant driving him towards the Source in the real world, thanks to the aforementioned programming? Like all other loose ends in the movies, that is of no importance, as long as Neo “believes”, and that we do, too.

Kansas is going bye bye.

During Neo’s “awakening”, the strong intertext with Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz makes it clear that he is experiencing the classic crossing of the threshold found in portal/quest fantasy (see Farah Mendlesohn, Rhetorics of Fantasy). Fantasy and myths are powerful devices, for they turn complex realities into simple narratives. Indeed, on the surface level, the Matrix trilogy does work as an allegory, machines are moved by cold logic, while humans have emotions and free will, a common motif in science fiction and arguably a central one to cyberpunk.

But the line between free will, an act of reason, and mysticism blurs quickly. In order to fully embrace his destiny as “The One”, Neo has not to “think” that he is, but to “know” that he is. Thus his awakening is not done through experiencing reality, but through “believing”, through a religious-like epistemology of revelation. In the context of fiction, is it still science fiction, then? In comparison, the singularities of Gibson, “When it changed” in the Sprawl trilogy and the materialization of the Rei Toei in the Bridge trilogy, are punctual events, and not unveiled truths.

Protestant mysticism and the art of Apocalyptic landscape: “The Great Day of His Wrath” by British romantic painter John Martin, c1853 (left) and the Battle for Zion (right).
Protestant mysticism and the art of Apocalyptic landscape: “The Great Day of His Wrath” by British romantic painter John Martin, c1853 (left) and the Battle for Zion (right).

That said, in the end, Matrix puts its heart in the right place. The key to the movies is found in the final confrontation between Smith and Neo. Mankind’s choice, reflected by Neo’s, is not between the real and the unreal, but between two matrices: the bad matrix is materialistic and controlled from above, and we trudge through it blindly; the good matrix, just as unreal as the other, as Smith points out, is made out of abstract humanistic ideals, and this is what Neo chooses, to be “programmed” by higher virtues than simple purpose.

One can only salute this choice, but, narratively, dealing with absolutes and abstractions is still the rhetoric of fantasy, and the simplicity of it raises questions about the real value of the confused complexity that made the reputation of the movies. In his seminal work of science fiction criticism, Structural Fabulation, Robert Scholes opens his first lecture with the following lines:

“Knowing one thing is a way of not knowing something else. If I know the earth is flat, this is a way of not knowing that it is round. Frequently – usually – knowing something easy is a way of not knowing something hard.” (Robert Scholes, Structural Fabulation, University of Notre Dame Press, 1975, p.1.)

In the case at hand, knowing that I am controlled by some ghostly master computer is more convenient than knowing that I am controlled by economic imperatives, political biases, cultural patterns, religious bigotry and whatnot. True cyberpunk should deal with the matrix of the real, in which choices are never positively good or bad, and their consequences are always equivocal.

Conclusion

Those three elements, the complete estrangement of both virtual and actual reality, the return of the heroic archetype and the fantasy-like worldview asking for the suspension of disbelief, make for the Matrix franchise, in my opinion, to be the exact opposite of cyberpunk.

The evolution of the cyberpunk genre is inevitable and should be encouraged. The present technology is changing, and it follows that near-future extrapolations should too. I do not wish to see an endless chain of Blade Runner derivatives, and Matrix obviously takes another path. But the consequence of this specific path, for genre theory, is to switch back from complex realist drama to linear epic fantasy. Only this time it is blazing with green LED. By reverting to tried-and-true blockbuster storytelling, Matrix does not mark a leap forward for the genre, but rather a major step towards its complete integration into the culture industry.

Ironically, until the turn of the millennium and the success of major franchises like Matrix, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, the rebirth of Star Wars, juvenile so-called “dystopias” and the all-you-can-eat buffet of super-heroes, science fiction was largely considered a minor genre, preoccupied mostly with adventure, action and coming-of-age fantasies. It is my opinion that cyberpunk, a subgenre whose main feature is to be anticipation as close to the present as it is possible while still claiming the “sci-fi” label, was a major contribution to bringing the genre to maturity, a maturity that is now undermined by the very franchises that brought it into the spotlights.

So cyber-fantasy it is. Okay. I can live with that. I am, however, uncomfortable to declare Matrix as the philosophical crux of cyberpunk. Because behind the smoke-screen, what Matrix offers is little more than the perfect fable for its alleged “peak of human civilization”: Christian American, terrified of Y2K, obsessed with half-digested Eastern wisdom and with the products of its own dream factory, Hollywood.

Front page of the infamous Weekly World News, circa 1999.
The “Y2K Computer Bug”, or how using two-digit dates instead of four-digit almost cause the End of Days (not really). [Front page of the infamous Weekly World News, circa 1999]

Not without ground, some might oppose me that I am confusing the intended message (the metaphor of individual humanity opposing structured power) with its often unadvised reception (simulation as revelation). I would argue “believers” among the public are not mislead at all: Matrix, with its annoying insistence to use semantic variations of “belief”, is consistently calling for this interpretation, thus causing the movies to drink their own Kool-Aid, to regress to magical thinking and to stop working as a metaphor. With the intention of denouncing power structures, inciting a skeptical worldview and promoting individual choices, Matrix unwittingly presents a belligerent relation to the “Other”, incomplete reasoning that flirts with relativism, and a glorification of protestant mysticism rooted in conditional election inside a dreamlike narrative that avoids any real social issue. That kind of outrageous symbolism I readily accept in works such as Dune or in the Arthurian legend that I dearly cherish, but now is the time to ask the tough question:

Is Narnia cyberpunk when it dresses in tight leather?

I do not believe so.

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Pascal Rioux-Couillard is a punk, a literature scholar, a record collector, and a noisician. He believes that art is “the noise of culture” (Paulson, 1988), an entropic feedback loop in the redundant system that is society, and that cyberpunk culture is the most vivid expression of this noise.
3 Comments
  1. While I do not disagree with your central argument here, the problem with creating boundary lines of what is cyberpunk and what is not cyberpunk, or when cyberpunk began and when it ended, is that those boundaries are fluid at best, and totally imaginary at worst. Given your three central tenets, (the source of which I eagerly want to know by the way, citations please!) we could also say that the Matrix is a fundamental re-imagining of what cyperbunk can be, in the way that The Sopranos, also released in 1999, re-imagined the Mafia genres.

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  2. Super intriguing and well-researched critique. I’ve always felt the seminal work of cyberpunk fiction would come in the form of some sort of answer to Atlas Shrugged. That’s always been such a major philosophical reference point for everything cyberpunk throws daggers at. At least from my point of view. I agree that the most intriguing cyberpunk works lie on some spectrum not far from the world as we know it, and The Matrix did itself a disservice by devolving into run-of-the-mill science fiction and romanticizing neoliberalism and exploring the wrong kinds of philosophical questions.

    For me, cyberpunk has always been a slow march towards a dystopian future. And, along the way, you end up having to face tough questions about where we are going. Blade Runner did so well with this by having Deckard grapple with the amount of agency a humanoid machine has vis a vis an actual human.

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